men, masculinities and gender politics

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Responding to men's rights groups

Men's rights groups represent a hostile backlash to feminism, but their efforts in fact are unhelpful and even harmful for men themselves. Michael Flood describes how we can respond.

MEN have responded in complex and contradictory ways to the profound changes of the last three decades, changes set in motion by the women's movements, changes in family organisation, economic and social shifts and other forces. While most men remain largely ignorant about feminism, small numbers have responded in both highly positive and highly negative ways. An organised backlash to feminism among men is now visible in Australia, as in most other Western capitalist countries.

Organised resistance to feminism has been around for over a century, but as far as I know anti-feminist groups of men organised specifically on the basis of their position as men (or as fathers) are more recent, appearing only in the last 30 years. Such groups in Australia include the Lone Fathers' Association, Dads Against Discrimination, the People's Equality Network in Melbourne, the Men's Confraternity in Perth, Family Law Injustice Group Helping Together, and many others. "Men's rights" groups overlap with "fathers' rights" groups and with non-custodial parents' groups, whose members are often fathers. These groups sometimes also have female members and even co-founders.

The new victims

MEN'S rights men focus on the costs and destructiveness to men of masculine roles. They dispute the feminist idea that men (or some men) gain power and privilege in society, claiming that both women and men are equally oppressed or limited or even that men are oppressed by women. Men are "success objects" (like women are "sex objects") and burdened as providers, violence against men (through war, work and by women) is endemic and socially tolerated, and men are discriminated against in divorce and child custody proceedings. As far as "men's rights" are concerned, these men believe that men's right to a fair trial in domestic violence cases, to a fair negotiation in custody settlements, and to fair treatment in the media have all been lost.

The men in men's rights groups are typically in their forties and fifties, often divorced or separated, and nearly always heterosexual. In both general men's rights groups and fathers' rights groups, participants often are very angry, bitter and hurting (with good reason, they would say), and they often have gone through deeply painful marriage breakups and custody battles.

For some men's rights men, feminism has largely achieved its goals and women have more choices, while men are still stuck in traditional masculine roles. For some, feminism was once a 'human liberation' movement that now only looks after women. For others, it never tried to liberate men, it has even tried to keep men in their traditional roles (eg as providers), and "feminazis" are involved in a conspiracy to discriminate against men and cover up violence against them.

Some men's rights and fathers' rights groups have links to conservative Christian organisations and support a traditional patriarchal family as the only real and natural form of family, while others have more flexible visions of family and gender relations. But most share the common enemy of feminism, as well as gay and lesbian politics and other progressive movements and ideals.

Two issues in particular have become the focus of men's rights and fathers' rights groups: interpersonal violence, and family law and custody. Men in these groups provide support for men undergoing custody settlements, attack the existence of services for women through legal action and harassment, lobby governments and so on.

Pro-sexist

I'VE been calling these "men's rights" groups, because this is a common description and because some of the groups use it themselves. "Anti-feminist" is also a useful description for nearly all these groups. When I interviewed the American activist Victor Lewis, he called them "status-quo" or "pro-sexist men's movements". Another term is "masculinist", popular among American men's rights men but not in much use here.

Men's rights groups can be seen as part of the men's movement, a loose network of men's groups and organisations around Australia, and they represent its most anti-feminist wing. Thankfully, men's rights is not the dominant agenda, and much of the men's movement focuses on personal growth and healing, emphasising what some have termed "men's liberation". (See my articles in the Spring 1996 edition of XY for an outline.) While most men in the movement would agree that men's roles are unhealthy and damaging for men, men's rights men blame women or feminism for the harm done to men and argue that men are now the real victims.

While men's rights and anti-feminist views are in the minority in men's movement circles, I believe that they are gaining in prominence and popularity. Anti-feminist men are among the most politically active men in this movement. Their views have been effective in capturing media attention, and in attracting sympathy from many men around the country. "Men's rights" draws on the ignorant and defensive reactions to feminism among many men, as well as right-wing backlashes (for example against "political correctness" and efforts at social justice).

Hey presto, manifesto

HOW can we respond to men's rights groups? Actually, let's not just be reactive, let's be proactive. How do we assert a pro-feminist and male-positive understanding of men? Here is a four-point manifesto.

(1) Assert a feminist-supportive and male-positive perspective.

Men such as ourselves, men with a concern for men's issues and a sympathy for feminism, should be trying as hard as possible to take up space in the public arena and to affect social and political relations. We should be writing letters to the editor, lobbying politicians, sending submissions, being interviewed, phoning talkback, plugging XY, holding meetings, forming alliances, getting funding, doing deals and shaking hands.

One point of all this is to create an alternative voice on gender issues that is specifically male. Of course it is essential that women take up as much space as possible too, but pro-feminist men have a particular role we can play, and ironically, sometimes we may be listened to more because we are male. We need to show that anti-feminist men do not speak for all men.

We also need to defend women's organisations, services and feminism in general from attacks by men's rights forces. Men have an important role to play as allies of feminist organisations, putting ourselves between them and men's rights groups, taking the heat and limiting the extent to which women's energies are used up in responding to these attacks.

Speak to pain

(2) TAKE up men's rights issues, but differently.

Men's rights men so far have been far more effective than pro-feminist men in speaking to certain aspects of men's lives. They rightly identify the pain, confusion and powerlessness which many men experience, although they misdiagnose it and thus misprescribe the cure.

We need to take up the issues about which men's rights men are vocal, offering an alternative analysis of their character and causes. We have to try to reach the men who otherwise might join men's rights organisations and in some cases who have their pain turned into anti-women backlash. Doing so will be challenging, and it may involve questioning aspects of the feminist-informed analyses we have held so far. I believe that a recognition of areas of men's pain and even disadvantage is compatible with a feminist understanding (that is, an understanding based on a commitment to gender equality and justice), but it may take some reworking for this compatibility to be realised.

On divorce and custody for example, I have heard enough now that I accept that sometimes men are unfairly treated. At the same time, I reject the broader claims made by men's rights men, for example that the family courts generally disadvantage men and advantage women, that women frequently make false accusations of sexual abuse, or that we need a return to the days of fault-based divorce or the preservation of the nuclear family at all costs.

Domestic violence is a second crucial area for men's rights men, and equally important for feminists and pro-feminists alike. We have to acknowledge that yes, men are the victims of violence. Men and boys are bashed up outside the pub, bullied at school, sexually assaulted as children, bashed in the home, shot on the battlefield, and daily experience frequent "aggro" and put-downs and threats. Yes, men are the victims of violence, but mostly this is violence by other men. Boys and men are most at risk of violence from other boys and men.

Men's rights men typically claim that men and women assault each other at equal rates and with equal effects, and that an epidemic of husband-battering is being ignored if not silenced. The information with which to disprove these claims is readily available, and we should have it at our fingertips. (Let me know if you want copies.)

We do have to acknowledge that women can be and are sometimes violent. Some proportion of child sexual assault involves adult female perpetrators and male victims, and a very small proportion of physical violence between adults involves female perpetrators. I believe that it is politically essential, and fully in line with feminist principles, to acknowledge this violence and to develop feminist responses to it. Indeed, feminist literature itself shows a growing literature on abuse and violence by women. And this does not take away from the main response here, to point out that males are most at risk from other males.

Another aspect of the response, perhaps a strategy in itself, is to put men's rights claims and agendas in their political context. On women's violence for example, men's rights agendas seem to stem as much from political and anti-feminist motives as they do from a genuine concern for male victims of violence. These men are using women's alleged violence against men as a way of discrediting attempts to deal with men's violence against women. Additionally, in a climate in which men's violence against women is widespread and many men are refusing to take it seriously, it is not surprising that women have sometimes been reluctant to focus on violence by women. If men were to take full responsibility for addressing their violence, both individually and collectively, then there would be far more space for women to address issues of women's violence when it does occur.

Win/lose won't work

ON divorce, custody, violence and other issues at stake in gender relations, we need to respond not merely ideologically, in the war of words, but practically. We need to set up services and resources, and this is my fourth strategy below.

(3) Show that men's rights strategies in fact are harmful to men themselves.

The key point to make here is that attacking services primarily for women is no way to gain services for men. Men's rights advocates have attacked women's refuges and women's health centres, simultaneously while calling for either parallel services for men (refuges, health centres, even an Office for the Status of Men) or services for both men and women.

There are at least four problems with such strategies. They focus on the wrong target, they antagonise potential supporters, they taint as backlash the need to address such men's issues, and they are based on a simplistic "You've got it, we want it too" logic which may not provide the most appropriate services for men.

In the case of violence done to men, the problem primarily is not women, and it is certainly not women's services. It is men who are responsible for most violent behaviour. The problem instead is the models of manhood with which all men grow up. To end the violence we will have to change these models, such that toughness, aggression and insensitivity stop ruling men's lives.

Attacking existing services for female survivors (or feminism in general) does male survivors of violence a disservice. It is an attack on the very people who brought the issue of interpersonal violence to public attention in the first place and who have been leaders in this field. It unnecessarily antagonises the women (and men) who could be usefully  involved in responding to male survivors. And it taints as 'backlash' the call for recognition of violence experienced by men.

The same is true for men's health: the problem is not women, or the feminist health movement and the organisations it worked to establish, but destructive notions of manhood, an economic system which values profit and productivity over workers' health, and so on. Richard Fletcher, a veteran men's health advocate and one of the most well recognised and widely published leaders in this area, writes, "Some of the key advocates for greater attention to this issue [men's health] are women whose involvement has been generated by concern for close male relatives." He describes women's (often nurses') advocacy, investigation and promotion of awareness of men's health issues. To try to build men's health by taking away from women's health is to shoot oneself in the prostate, and is a betrayal of the principles on which a concern for health should be based in the first place.

It is striking how often the things men's rights men call for are the mirror image of things established by three decades of women's movements. You've got a women's health centre or a refuge, we want a men's one, and so on. This "us too" approach won't actually get men the most appropriate services they need, because it is motivated more by a kneejerk logic of equality than by an informed appraisal of the kinds of services men are going to use and like. On men's health, Fletcher says we shouldn't simply model men's health on the early development of women's health, because of crucial differences between them. For example, setting up men's health centres might not be the best approach, because there is some evidence that men are more likely to go to generalist medical centres.

(4) Set up services.

Whether the issue is divorce or men's health, we need to provide feminist-informed or at the very least feminist-neutral (and of course male-positive) services and resources for men. If men who have gone through painful divorces and messy custody proceedings, men who are hurting and confused, can find access to such services, they will be able to work through this in ways that are healthy and safe. In fact, I believe that this is happening in Brisbane, as a coalition of women's and community groups respond to the Men's Rights Agency and the Hillcrest murders.

I am suggesting that we speak to the experience of boys and men in such situations, but offer a different interpretation of it and encourage a different resolution for it to those in men's rights ideology.

Ask not what your country

I THINK pro-feminist men (myself included) have been too quick to stereotype as committed woman-haters and sexist dinosaurs all men who raise typical "men's rights" issues. We have been sometimes influenced by the dominant model of oppositional politics, in which all such men are "enemies", to be approached (if at all) with disdain, hostility and self-righteous zeal. We have focused sometimes on the negative and we have attributed motives to men's actions which are not necessarily accurate. Such approaches limit our political effectiveness, making it very difficult for us to reach anyone but the almost-converted.

We will be better able to respond to men's rights agendas if we have a proper idea of the experiences, needs and fears of the men who support them. This was brought home to me in a confrontation with a very angry and hostile man, a men's rights activist from Melbourne. After two hours of talking, he told me of the effect on him of having being sexually abused as a child by his mother and another woman. I've also heard some men's stories of their ex-wives acting maliciously or dishonestly and of an unsupportive legal system. I did not accept the wider conclusions that such men drew from their experiences, and I assume too that for any one incident (like a custody battle) there will be multiple versions of what happened. But if I want to reach such men at all, I do have to accept that what they describe is their reality for the moment and I have to show that I have heard them.

I believe that it is politically more effective, and ethically appropriate, for us to act with integrity, to be prepared to listen and to deal respectfully with conflict. However, this doesn't answer the question, how much of our energies should go into engagement with men's rights men, and I am in two minds about this.

I am very troubled by the organised anti-feminist men's groups in this country, especially as they are making themselves heard in an increasingly conservative political climate. It will be a continual challenge to assert a feminist-sympathetic (and male-affirming) perspective, in the presence of such groups and of the ignorance of many men. This is the challenge that faces us as we near the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first. I hope that you and I can take it up with passion, pride and courage.

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What's wrong with men's rights?

  • In general, "men's rights" is an anti-feminist and sometimes misogynist (woman-hating) backlash. Its analysis is wrong, its strategies are misdirected and sometimes harmful, and ultimately it does not serve men's best interests. There are legitimate aspects to the issues it raises, but they will not be addressed when surrounded by its hostile and sexist agendas.
  • The power and privilege which many men receive and exercise are made invisible in men's rights claims. They ignore men's dominance of powerful institutions and positions (institutional power), men's power in relationships (personal power), and cultural support for traditional masculine ideals and attitudes (cultural power). This is not to say all men are powerful and all women are powerless: clearly neither is true, and some men are relatively powerless (Aboriginal men being a good example) just as some women are relatively powerful.
    • Some of the examples men's rights advocates give of men's powerlessness or oppression (being sent off to war, killed in factories) are in fact examples of some men's powerlessness at the hands of other men. Men's rights ideologies fail to recognise differences and power relations among men themselves, eg of race, class and sexuality, and the crucial role of these in the injustices which they attribute to men in general.
    • Some of the examples given of injustices or discriminations experienced by men (including some at the hands of women) are legitimate examples, which must be dealt with. For example, some boys are sexually abused, by adult men and sometimes women. Some men are unfairly treated in custody and divorce matters. But men's rights men wrongly use such examples to make much grander claims, for example that men are oppressed by women or that there is some kind of feminist conspiracy to cover up abuse of men.
  • Men's rights arguments correctly identify areas of male pain, but misdiagnose their prevalence and their source and thus misprescribe the cure. Men's rights men generally are wrong to place the blame with women, the loss of masculine rites of passage or the success of the feminist movement. Yes, let's acknowledge and tackle the ways in which men are hurt and disempowered. And let's not do this, as men's rights does, at the expense of women or gender justice.
  • Feminism is a movement and set of ideas to which many men's rights men show venomous and semi-hysterical hostility. They mistakenly hear feminism's anti-sexism or anti-patriarchy as anti-male or "misandrist" (man-hating), and oddly enough, they fail to hear the enormous hope for both women's and men's futures which feminism embodies.
    • Men's rights men in fact offer a bizarre caricature of feminism, a highly ignorant and selective misrepresentation. It is based on gross stereotypes and long-standing sexist images of women as ball-breaking and malicious. Most men's rights men show almost no acquaintance with the huge and diverse feminist literature now available and with the feminist women and organisations in existence.
  • Finally, the strategies adopted by men's rights men, which include attacks on services and resources devoted to women, will not be helpful for men themselves. They may result in propping up traditional and restrictive models of manhood or masculinity, which are harmful for women and unhealthy for men themselves.

A shorter version of this article was first published in XY: Men, Sex, Politics, 7(2), Spring 1997. Reprinted with permission. PO Box 26, Ainslie ACT, 2602, AUSTRALIA.